vendredi 21 septembre 2012


France is not a car culture, at least not in the American sense.  Oh, it has a strong automotive industry, with the productive (and some years, even profitable) presence of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault, but the arteries of the country are made of steel--thanks to the fantastic SNCF railway system ---and not asphalt.  80% of Parisians don't even have a car, a figure I find astounding until I remind myself of how effectively the Paris métro is at moving people around.
 One has to wonder how Parisian teens find a workaround to the absence of the car.  I'm not talking about transportation---these city kids typically become metro-savvy in their early teens (or when mom gets tired of accompanying them everywhere), riding the subway with ease and skill.   I'm refering to the universal adolescent need for a private space in which to experience that first kiss.  (Or other.)  With no backseat, where do they go?

Enter Wednesday afternoon.

French kids go to school on Saturday mornings.  In exchange, they have Wednesday afternoons free.  This rhythm dates back to the 19th century, when, under the Third Republic, the loi du 28 mars 1882 was put into place, allowing for one day off from academics so that catecism could be taught outside the school.  The "outside the school" part is essential, as it was during this same time that France declared a separation of church and state, driving religious instruction from the public domain to the private, where it sits--in theory, anyway--today.  Why "in theory"?  I still see some holdovers from catholicism present in the public schools in the form of Friday's school lunches which always feature fish.  But the basic tenet of laicité, or secularism, is strongly enforced in France's public schools.  You will never hear "One Nation, under God," or anything of that nature in a French public school classroom.

So Wednesday afternoons get taken up by extra-curriculars.  For young schoolchildren, this time is often devoted to a sport, lunch with the grandparents, or an art class.  There is catechism, of course, for those of that faith.   For the high-schoolers, though, Wednesday is often the day they look forward to the most, especially if said high-schooler has working parents.  They know that for that afternoon only, the apartment is theirs to do with as they wish.  Heaven help the parent of a teenager who comes home unexpectedly on a Wednesday afternoon.

You can observe the importance of "Free Wednesday" in many sweet ways here.  For little children, this is  the traditional day for les goûters d'anniversaires (birthday parties) to be held, which gives them the curious nature of never having any dads present (as they are working).  Cakes and treats will be more plentiful in bakeries (since the children eat lunch at home on that day, rather than in the school cantine); pediatricians and other children's health professionals hold more office hours on Wednesdays to accommodate their patients.  The American Embassy in Paris limits passport appointments on Wednesdays uniquely to those parents coming in with minors.

Wednesday is for birthday parties!

It's lovely, when you think about it, how an entire society shapes itself around this very old law.   Oh, every time there's a new government the notion of "school rhythm" gets examined, and some tweaks are made here and there (Saturday classes were eliminated in the elementary schools a couple of years ago) but I hope the  principal of "Wednesday afternoon off" remains untouched.  As I'm sure my teenage daughters do, as well.

1 commentaire:

  1. Never knew kids don't have school Wednesday afternoons! But too bad they don't get 2 days off in a row.